Roger Bacon was an English philosopher, scholar and scientist of the 13th century, who was known for advocating empirical method of scientific study. His date of birth is estimated to be around 1213 or 1214. He was born in Somerset to a wealthy family during the reign of Henry III, when their property was seized and some of his family members were forced into exile. Bacon studied at Oxford and was thought to be a disciple of the English philosopher Robert Grosseteste. He returned to Oxford to become a lecturer on Aristotle. He later became a lecturer at University of Paris as Paris was then the intellectual capital of Europe. In 1256 he became a friar, and relinquished his teaching position.
At that time, friars were prohibited from publishing books, so Bacon used his influence with Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques, who later became Pope Clement IV, to allow him to continue writing and publishing books and pamphlets. When the Pope passed away, Bacon lost his writing privileges and was even placed under house arrest for some time, the reason for which remains unknown.
Bacon was thought to have had a variety of interests. He studied topics such as optics, and refraction of light, which led to the development of spectacles. He investigated the properties of the magnifying glass, partly based on the research of Islamic opticians such as Alhazen, who in turn was influenced by the 10th century scholar Ibn Sahl’s. He also worked to reform the traditional calendar and had a marked interested in astronomy.
He also worked to reform the Julian Calendar, which he believed was inefficient. Bacon suggested to Pope Clement IV in 1267 to rectify the errors in the existing calendar by dropping one day in the calendar every 125 years. He believed that Christians were celebrating holidays on the wrong days because the calendar was incorrect. The Pope considered his suggestions but his death put an end to this development. Pope’s research was the forerunner to the development of the Grosseteste calendar, based on further research and writing by Robert Grosseteste. He was also the first European to research and propound his views about the ingredients of gunpowder.
Roger Bacon was considered to be a modern experimental scientist as he placed emphasis on empirical and scientific study. Some authors suggest that he was strongly opposed to the Medieval Church for which he was often victimized and even imprisoned. He advocated scientific methods of learning in an age where it was ill received and his ideas were treated with hostility. Some even suggest that he predicted the invention of the submarine, automobile, and airplane in the 13th century, at a time when such notions were not even heard or conceived of. However, others suggest that these reports may have been exaggerated and that the Church at that time was not as narrow minded as is popularly believed and reports of Bacon’s persecution are grossly misrepresented. Perception about Bacon has considerably changed with one study by Lindberg saying that Bacon was not a modern scientist but an eccentric scholar of the thirteenth century who capitalized on the early spread of knowledge but remained true to medieval notions prevalent at that time.
Bacon’s year of death is believed to be around the year 1294. Many scholars today are influenced by his views. To commemorate his seven hundredth anniversary, Professor John Erskine of Columbia University wrote a biographical play called “A Pageant of the Thirteenth Century” about his life, and later published it as a book by Columbia University Press in 1914.